Issue 6: Lesson 6—Research (Part 3)

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In our last lesson, we highlighted some issues related to historical research. But not every fact-based film requires a trip to the library. Sometimes, the best way to gather the information you need write your screenplay is to don your journalist’s hat. So, this issue, we continue our look at screenplay research with a lesson on getting the most out of interviews…

Plenty of people shudder at the idea of interviewing, but there are times when you might need to roll up your sleeves and venture out into the real world to gain essential insight for your script. People you may want to consider contacting and interviewing are:

  • Anyone directly involved in your story (or their relatives)
  • Anyone with first or second-hand knowledge of the events you are fictionalising
  • Experts (who might help you get historical time periods, professions or other tricky areas right)

Make a list of all the people you’d like to contact, in an ideal world, and then start the process of finding out how you might actually get in contact with them.

Here’s where social media comes in handy, as you may find the people you’d like to talk to have a presence on one of the social media platforms, giving you an easy way to connect, initiate a conversation, or simply find a website address with contact details.

If you do connect through social media, don’t be a stalker or a nuisance. And don’t badger people into talking to you without some warm-up first. Ask pertinent questions, share their content and build up some goodwill before making your pitch. If they’re professionals, head over to LinkedIn and see if they have a profile page. This is a business platform, so don’t get too social or over-friendly.

If you’re talking to people involved in the story you’re telling, be upfront about what you’re doing. If you’re planning to fictionalise them in the movie, you’ll probably need a release (as we talked about in lesson 3) to avoid problems later.

In general, you’ll find experts easier to approach, and you might well find they’re eager to help and share their knowledge. Don’t forget, an expert can be a practitioner or academic, or they could just be someone who does the job your main character does, lives in the same place or has other specific knowledge of something pertinent to your script.

Try to track down an email address or telephone number so you can contact them privately – you may need to get online and search for them or go through the phone directories.

When you do make your pitch for the interview, keep it short and concise. If you have any relevant background that might incentivise them to talk, then offer it up. Otherwise just stick to the facts:

“Dear Mr…I am a screenwriter currently working on a script based upon [the life of Mr X]. I understand you lived in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, next door to where [Mr X] briefly lived during his childhood. If you have the time, I would very much appreciate if we could arrange a short interview to discuss your experiences. Your insights would be invaluable in helping me to accurately capture the atmosphere of Brooklyn during this time and the details of Mr X’s early life. An LA-based producer recently expressed interest in my script, so I am keen to move ahead with this project. As such, I hope you will be agreeable to granting me a short interview, at a time convenient to you.”

“Dear Dr…I am a writer currently working on a script based upon [the life of Dr Y, the first female heart surgeon]. As you are highly respected in the same field, I would very much appreciate the opportunity to conduct a short interview with you. I understand you provided similar assistance with a documentary on pioneering female doctors last year, and hope you would be willing to share your expertise with me, so that I can portray [Dr Y’s] professional experiences with authenticity, sensitivity and respect.

Of course, these are just random examples. It’s important be truthful – if there’s no producer in LA clamoring for your script, don’t pretend there is.

Be prepared for a ‘no’ (or deafening silence). If that’s the case, don’t pester (if you don’t hear anything, one follow-up a couple of weeks later is acceptable – people don’t always read emails regularly or return calls promptly). If it’s a definite no go, move on to the next person on the list and try again. This might be an easy process, or it might take some perseverance.

Tips on interviewing
Once you have someone willing to talk to you, here are a few tips on getting the most out of the interview:

  1. Plan ahead – do your homework on the interviewee and subject matter beforehand.
  2. Go in prepared – draft a list of questions you really want to find the answers to (but be prepared to improvise if the conversation goes off track).
  3. Keep an open mind – the interviewee might offer up things you weren’t expecting to hear and (like a journalist) you need to be prepared to explore those areas further.
  4. Take a tape-recorder/dictaphone – be upfront about recording the interview and ask permission before you switch it on (spare batteries and/or a back-up recording device are a good idea too).
  5. Keep the tape – you never know when you might need to retrieve the information (especially if you’re planning to use any potentially controversial or libelous material from the interview in your script).
  6. Go with the flow – your interviewee might be an enthusiastic talker who wanders from subject to subject without taking a breath, or they might be nervous and monosyllabic (meaning you’ll need to either direct or lead the interview).
  7. Consider email – while pre-emailing questions might kill the spontaneity dead, if you’re dealing with a professional/expert or are super-nervous it can be a good idea, as the interviewee has time to consider their responses (you can follow up with a phone/in-person interview later).
  8. Don’t overdo the note-taking – it might be tempting to write as they talk or scribble new questions you want to ask but be careful (it’s rude and you might miss something interesting that requires a follow-up question if you’re not really listening).
  9. Leave it open-ended – at the end, ask if they’d be happy for a follow-up if needed (in case something pops into your head later that you simply have to ask, or you need something clarified).
  10. Check your recording – make sure all is in order and transcribe your notes as soon as you can.
  11. Follow-up with a ‘thank you’ note – send a quick email to say that you appreciate their time and input.

Collating your notes
In an interview of 15-30 minutes, there’s going be a little gold and potentially lots of filler. So go through the notes of each interview you conduct carefully and highlight anything that catches your attention. This is where a thorough and accurate transcript comes in handy.

  • If Mr X’s neighbor reveals that before he moved in next door to your protagonist he was the first man to swim the Atlantic, make a note to follow up for a potential new project.
  • If your doctor expert lets slip that her psychiatrist father treated Dr Y for an alcohol addiction that no-one (including you) knew about, then prick up your ears and start to think how to work that tidbit into your script.

Always be asking: How is this information relevant to my story and its characters…and how will it make my script stronger?

To sum up…
The overall thing to take away from this lesson is that with basic knowledge of interviewing techniques, you can add an extra authentic touch to your script and infuse your story with actual real life experiences, straight from the horse’s mouth.

And who knows? You might even find your efforts shift the focus of your screenplay into exciting new territory.

Next time, we continue our look at research with a lesson on investigative techniques…for all the budding Sam Spades out there!

Issue 7 of RSL is out on 17 August.